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Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! purports to depict Texas college life in 1980 and comes up with a high-brow version of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). In fact, if you love Animal House, you’re likely to love this, too. But writer and director Richard Linklater’s college raunchfest is merely in the same genre as that college raunchfest and the films that followed (i.e., Porky’s). A gauzy climax, if it is one, and postscript are afterthoughts in a college fraternity fantasy.

Everybody-Wants-Some-POSTEREverything is tediously contrived in Everybody Wants Some!! which depicts a college baseball team just before the semester starts. Jamming punk, disco, rock and country pop into one movie about 1980, Linklater (Boyhood) cleverly and not so cleverly implants audio and visual signposts here and there, leading the batch of hooligans into a disco, country and western bar and punk club. It’s a meandering, aimless slice of life, with the boys playing with titties and relentlessly hazing one another and doing so with the jaded dialogue of a post-9/11 snarky late night host. None of this looks, sounds or feels realistic, despite the tube socks and other period touches (and the scene in the poster never happens, either). People didn’t say “Sup, dude” and “I get it! I get it!” and constantly snap lines at one another like the cast of Modern Family in 1980. The whole film feels like a laugh-tracked sitcom.

None of this would matter if the movie were about something other than a few days in the purposeless lives of wasted college students. That they are baseball players is incidental, really, because these hedonistic students could have been part of any fraternity of conformists who binge drink, smoke pot and engage in mindless sex. Theirs became the way of life of many if not most college students—this could be 1990, 2000, 2020—and, if future archaeologists dig up the rubble of where we’re heading and wonder how Americans ever fell under the spell of a nationalist like Trump or socialists like Clinton or Sanders, this movie will help them understand that, after the late 1960s and widespread acceptance of mindlessness ala Animal House, the most educated citizens mentally checked out, went blank and worshipped nothing—anything—whatever’s on TV or going on—mistaking that for Nirvana.

The best scenes involve baseball. The team finally shows up for a practice at mid-point in the picture. You almost get excited that something interesting will happen on screen besides the boredom of watching everybody get stoned, laid or hazed. But even this part—unless you think that pointing out that men are competitive is profound—gets down to crude vulgarity and ends in another asinine hazing action. The women are like blowup dolls, all long-haired, pouty and sex-starved airheads whether in a punk, country or disco joint. The music is ripped off the charts and none of it’s organically integrated, including and especially a scene in which the jocks all rap together in a car, which feels as era-authentic as jocks breaking into a show tune. Seriously, I kept thinking that the truest insight in this movie is that 1980 ushered in an era in which people stopped bothering to think and just wanted to feel—no wonder Americans are dumbed down to the point of accepting Trump—and go blank. This movie deals almost exclusively in this type of roaming, vacant emotionalism.

The worst part is that it pretends not to. It plays this game of pretend to make a point that college is not about college and it’s OK to party ’til you puke because you end up magically becoming human. In two droning hours, it celebrates just going along with the herd, trivializes free choice and mainstreams mindlessness.

Everybody Wants Some!! and, I suspect, Linklater, desperately wants the audience to think it’s sending up raunchy college days, because it’s wrapped up by a happy ending. Here, too, I foresee a boring marriage that ends up with a pair of stoned conformists, bearing children who mindlessly attend college, mindlessly tune out and seek to get stoned, laid or hazed, wafting into national socialism, feeling the Bern or some other mindless bandwagon. Like their parents. Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to stoke nostalgia. But it might have been called Nobody Wants Anything!! No single character demonstrates want of any value.

Through the final scenes, this picture, like Knocked Up and The Hangover, amounts to a generic plea for collectivism, whether through leftism or conservatism: join the party, get high and magically conform. Or: get stoned, blank out and fit in. If blankness or sameness could be a movie—dramatizing pre-mob mentality with pretentiousness; the antithesis of 1980’s Breaking Away—this is it.

Movie Review: I Saw the Light

ISawtheLightPosterFlawed and fragmented, but also layered and hypnotically absorbing, I Saw the Light, a movie about a country singer-songwriter in the previous century, is one of the better pictures in this biographically-oriented genre. Like last year’s inspiring Steve Jobs, it is an essentialized dramatization of a man’s historic life, not a journalistic account. As such, it is an insightful and moving—also relevant—portrait of a musical genius.

Ranging over certain points in his short life—and I knew little about this artist going in—I Saw the Light starts in the heart of Dixie. The year is 1944 and the scrawny young singer, portrayed by Tom Hiddleston (Thor, War Horse) is getting married to an attractive woman named Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen). Writer and director Marc Abraham focuses on exploring, as against showcasing, the enigma of Hank Williams. So what you get is a darkened story driven by his choices, goals and songs, in simple terms with simple themes of alcohol, women and music. Unlike 2005’s worthwhile Walk the Line, a fine but overstylized movie about country legend Johnny Cash, I Saw the Light, also titled after one of the artist’s tunes, probes and ponders what lies beneath the beauty of Hank Williams’ simplicity.

Hiddleston as Williams is magnetic, though he is older than Williams as depicted and this fact is distracting. Other problems include a narrative device that doesn’t work and a distinct deficit of making certain themes explicit through exposition of the music, which I Saw the Light skimps on. As Audrey, Olsen is uneven and it’s through no fault of Abraham’s, because the role is rich and both cast and casting are good. Cherry Jones as his mother, David Krumholtz as a daring reporter and Wrenn Schmidt as one of his fixations stand out. But it is Hiddleston as Hank Williams who leads and charges the picture. Those eyes like deep pools plead in pain, charm and cajole and, ultimately, wearily and achingly, express a benevolent wish for happiness that make his one of the screen’s most intelligent performances.

The complications of being an artist—of being a man—of being alive come through in this opaque portrait. Whether he’s getting fired for drunkenness, struggling to hang on to his marriage or balance ownership of his work with partnership in his business or just trying to be left alone to write a song, Williams is as vulnerable, combustible and self-destructive as the best (Elvis, Michael Jackson and Whitney come to mind). Hank Williams on paper sounds like a real cad and, as shown in this adaptation of a biography by Colin Escott, et al., he can be cutting and cruel.

But in these years after the world went to war, before the nation integrated the races, neatly pocketed with Hank Williams’ ability to tell stories through poetry and song and make people believe in something—he distinguishes country music by its sincerity—in the places of the American South, one unassuming yet passionate writer emerges as a unique mid-century American idol. The voice twangs and howls and speaks in simple, rhyming lines about the hardness of living life. It made me want to know, understand and appreciate Hank Williams, whom it’s said influenced the best of postwar popular music.

For this reason, as simply as Hank Williams wrote and sang a tune, I Saw the Light seeps in, echoes and lingers. The movie shows and tells the story of a sincere and serious man whose short and troubled days on earth made an indelible impact. The best pictures about real people offer an essentialized part of the person’s life that makes you want to think about the whole of that individual life. This one does that with simplicity and universality so you end up thinking about your own life in whole, too.

Movie Review: Sing Street

SingStreet PosterJohn Carney’s spirited Sing Street is the perfect movie for right now. Writer and director Carney (Once), who wrote or co-wrote several songs in the picture, balances the bitter with the sweet on a small scale and lets the story achieve an idealistic purpose. This fact alone makes Sing Street a rare and welcome accomplishment.

Set in Dublin in 1985 at the height of Western civilization’s burst of rock romanticism known as the New Wave, Sing Street sweeps its main character, a young teen named Conor (newcomer Ferdio Walsh-Peelo), into the hopelessness of socialism in short, brisk strokes. At first, he strums music to deflect his parents’ marital tension. Music is a hobby to pass time between bouts. That a new incarnation of melodic, glamorous rock becomes to him and his older brother Brendan (excellent Jack Reynor) a shared symbol of what can and ought to be, in the form of a Duran Duran music video, centers the multilayered plot.

Due to financial strain, his parents send him to a dodgy Catholic school where thugs roam freely and priests merely manage Dublin’s male students. His father forewarns but forces him into the school, where a bully targets the fresh-faced kid and the principal seeks to make him conform as a moral duty to authority. Restless and coached by his worldly older brother, the kid looks for any means to break the line and muddle through. He finds Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on a stoop.

In a moment of bluster, he improvises to her that he’s a singer in a band, so she dares him to sing a line from the new hit song “Take on Me” by a-ha. He stumbles through, improvises again and winds up having to deliver some of what he’s promised. Enter an assembled band with a couple of talented musicians, a chubby kid, a geek with braces and one who likes rabbits. Before you can sing “don’t you wonder what we’ll find” from Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out”, out comes the gear, the cover tunes, the rehearsals, the outfits and, of course, a music video featuring the would-be glamour girl.

As the lad’s life gets complicated, he puts himself into the new enterprise and becomes a songwriter.

With skilled and appealing leads wrapped in Irish sweaters and fitted with witty lines, Carney’s and The Weinstein Company’s radically wholesome and romantic Sing Street breaks down the bone-crushing blows and heartbreaks of being poor, young and trapped in an unhappy family on a religious welfare island. With an old-fashioned spirit of putting on a show rooted in one’s problem-solving amid the prospect of a bleak future, Sing Street finds the good in three acts. Mixed with subtle digs at predatory authority figures, intelligently and marvelously developed characters, performances and scenes about making music from “the wreckage of family”, and learning to love who you see in the mirror, Carney weaves the harshness of life for “a kid, a girl and the future” into the optimism of 1980s’ pop culture.

This essentially American sense of life is rightly named, reclaimed and layered in the invigorating and reverentially idealistic Sing Street, with an adroit sense of melancholy from The Cure and a nod to Philadelphia bop with “Maneater” by Hall and Oates. There are plain and hidden insights about songwriting, friendship and brotherhood besides the awkward romance that develops between mysteriously damaged Raphina and wide-eyed Conor and some of it is so simple that it’s tempting to gloss over its playful abandon. The cast is outstanding. So is the music.

Unexpectedly, Sing Street is the antidote to the John Hughes movie (and I like those movies, particularly Some Kind of Wonderful). Those films often take place in the 80s while playing to themes that emanate from the 1960s or, at their best, the 1970s. Sing Street instead applies the exuberant ethos of the 1980s—with scenes of strangers dancing in public, as the Irish coastline goes by, and a boy’s delightful fantasy—to universal themes relevant in today’s hard economic reality. Like the better New Wave songs and indelible music videos, it cultivates an earnest theme that life can and should be as it is in music and pictures and lets it free as a badly needed burst of youthfulness and joy.

Sing Street opens in movie theaters on April 15.

David Bowie

BowieLowThe second week of the new year begins with shocking news that rock’s renaissance man, David Bowie, died of cancer. Mr. Bowie was 69.

Whatever his artistic merits or legacy, and his music and movies are certainly indelible in my life, Mr. Bowie’s body of work is astonishing for a few reasons. Though he reportedly struggled with addiction, mental illness and serious conflicts—he apparently favored the work of his post-addiction Berlin period (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger)—David Bowie was singularly dedicated to making music.

According to biographer David Buckley, after numerous early career failures under his birth name, David Jones, he chose the last name Bowie based upon American frontiersman Jim Bowie, who fought at the Alamo. I don’t know why he chose Bowie but it marks a turning point in his self-made life.

Mr. Bowie admired Elvis Presley among other influential recording artists and he eventually wrote, recorded, performed, starred or worked with everyone from Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury in rock to Bing Crosby and Cher in classics, pop and television. The gaunt David Bowie—who appeared in many movies and created many dramatic roles including his breakout stage persona Ziggy Stardust—starred as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). He wrote a hit song with John Lennon (“Fame”), sought to adapt George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a musical, worked in pictures with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak (Just a Gigolo) and released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday last week.

BowieLodgerI have the impression that David Bowie wasn’t just notching names, genres and lists; his uniquely wide-ranging work was meaningful to David Bowie, not a calculated endeavor for status, awards or impressing or beating others, not that he wasn’t also competitive. He was by most accounts talented, curious and insatiable, not merely a chameleon, “gender-bender”, freak, misfit or strange alien. He wrote songs, conceived of albums, played instruments, selected his projects and produced records. Perhaps most underrated were David Bowie’s versatile vocals. Whether one appreciates his style, theatricality or music, David Bowie worked hard and took pride in his work.

David_Bowie_-_HeroesMr. Bowie’s range is remarkable, which is why his death is being felt throughout the West as his pictures, concerts, movies, TV appearances, albums and songs replay in people’s minds with potent memories: the gently ascendant claim-staking of the non-conformist in “Changes”, the defiant strut of “Rebel, Rebel”, the biting lines in “Fame”, the sharp, wry, liberating “Young Americans”, the brilliant beats, licks and hooks of “Let’s Dance”, peaceful pleading of “Space Oddity”, anger of “Fashion”, despair of “Ashes to Ashes”, lament of “Under Pressure”, frenzy of “Suffragette City” and, in what may be his signature song, in waves of electronic distortion and always in quotation marks, the aching “Heroes”, which David Bowie wrote in Berlin for his 1977 album of the same name.

The droning, looping “Heroes”, brought to life by Mr. Bowie’s lyrics and vocals, is an eerie account of lovers in the German city no longer ruled by Nazis which was instead the center of the 20th century’s concretized symbol of the world’s worst dictatorship in history, the Berlin Wall. This week, Germany rightly recognized (in a statement on Mr. Bowie’s death) that the wall came down due in part to David Bowie’s strong, howling cry for love, youth and idealism; man’s triumph over slavery “just for one day”. Is it possible that a tune written by one outspoken man can topple a wall put up to keep free people out—and enslaved people trapped—and change the world?

David Bowie, may he rest in peace, shows that it is.

Music Review: ’25’ by Adele (Target Exclusive)

Adele Album 25On Adele’s new album, 25, she howls, she bellows, she wails and I think this vocal approach is why Adele has become one of the bestselling recording artists of our time. I think Adele expresses what millions of Brits and Americans feel these days; an aching, yearning lament for lost innocence.

The songs are good, not exceptional, though some stand out. The 14 tunes on Target’s exclusive extended album version (with three bonus songs) are generally well-crafted melodies and expertly delivered, if overproduced, to accentuate Adele’s primary ability to belt out a tune. 25 is a listenable album.

It’s occasionally enjoyable as well. The songs, even as delivered, are unlikely to be remembered through the ages. Soulful Adele, like so many modern pop singers before her—from U2’s Bono and Sinead O’Connor to Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and James Blunt, sings of longing and lament. She specializes on this album in conveying anxiety, doubt, fear, pain and guilt—which explains why this collection instantaneously broke records. She’s less tortured here than on previous efforts and, as I observed about the first single, “Hello”, there is resilience in her howling, haunting voice. Breaking voice, rising and falling with lush production from top producers, and evoking rhythm and blues, Bruce Hornsby and a range of styles, 25 has an easy, swaying quality to it. Adele co-writes with others, such as Greg Kurstin, recording the album mostly in London and also in New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Prague.

Though I would have preferred to have this album on streaming service through Apple Music, I do recommend Target’s special edition because the three bonus tracks include two of the album’s best songs, the plaintive and looping ballad “Can’t Let Go”—co-written with Linda Perry—and 25‘s most upbeat song, co-written by Adele with Rick Nowels, “Why Do You Love Me”, which has an undeniable, dance floor-friendly hook. This song is also the least melodramatic. Other tracks are a good balance by today’s standards, especially the solemn “Hello”. I suspect that the reason it’s selling four million copies in the first few weeks is that Adele, in voice, tune and mood, captures the tiredness and tension of balancing what one wants with what one wants to guard in the everyday onslaught of today’s darkening world.

In 25, Adele grieves for the loss of innocence while striving to hold on. As she sings in “Can’t Let Go”: “I never lied and I never faded…” Though she sings in past tense, she adds that she won’t let go. Beyond the melodrama of anguish, I think this ability to express perseverance may be what powers her phenomenal success.